Robert M. Price. The Reason Driven Life: What Am I Here On Earth For? Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2006. See here to buy the book.
Robert M. Price is often characterized as an atheist biblical scholar. The Reason Driven Life is his response to evangelical pastor Rick Warren’s popular bestseller, The Purpose Driven Life. Atheist comedian Julia Sweeney wrote the Foreword to The Reason Driven Life. Here are some reactions to Price’s book.
- Have I stopped believing in God after reading The Reason Driven Life? Well, no. Some of my reasons are emotional. I cannot give up that security blanket! It helps me emotionally to believe that I can go to God with my problems, that I am not alone. Some of my reasons are more anecdotal: I have heard stories about the supernatural in people’s lives, so I do not believe that this life is all there is. Price says in The Reason Driven Life that, when he dialogues with born-again Christians (and Price offers suggestions about when, how, and if one should do that), he tries to show them that they can have what their faith offers apart from their faith. Indeed, in certain areas, I agree that they can. They can have moral values. They can enjoy beauty that is above and beyond themselves, as Price does when he goes to church or sees great art. They can appreciate and derive wisdom from the Bible and other religions, as Price does, though I question whether they can legitimately accept the parts that deal with the supernatural or that make metaphysical claims. If they do, and here I think of Price’s openness in the book to certain Stoic and Hindu claims (i.e., a divinity underlying the cosmos), I would be curious about their basis for doing so, or the extent to which they are doing so: perhaps they adopt aspects of the supernatural or metaphysical claims but not their entirety, or they think that certain supernatural or metaphysical claims are profound even if they are not literally true. But back to the question of whether I can have what my faith offers without my faith. My answer would be “not entirely.” Without my faith, I would not have a higher power I can go to when I am vulnerable or need strength.
- Some may say that I lean on my faith so that I can avoid taking responsibility for my own life and success. If I am praying to God, am I leaving things to him rather than doing what I need to do to meet my wants and needs? Well, I am not going to say that I am perfect in that department. But I do believe in taking personal action, not just praying. Price talks about studying successful people and seeing if one can learn from their suggestions. I am open to that. I deal with social anxiety, and I have been thinking that perhaps it would be helpful to me—-and those who read me—-to read a book or two about that subject, so that I can learn how to see and deal with social situations, rather than freezing up and walking away feeling that I am an inept loser. As Price says about other topics, there is a lot of wisdom and experience out there, and I would be remiss to close my ears to that! Still, I do have an emotional need for God to be with me through all of this. Price talks about the importance of attitude—-how a negative attitude can close one’s eyes to possible opportunities, or even give off bad vibes to others that can inhibit a person’s success. He may be correct about this. The hard part for me is getting rid of my negative attitude, especially with my memories of failure, or feelings that I am not going anywhere. I think that my faith can help me here—-I have found Joel Osteen’s teachings to be helpful to me in that they encourage me to hope, even if I do not embrace the entirety of Joel’s prosperity message. I remember reading a blog post that recommended a book that was about having a positive, yet realistic (not Polyannish), attitude, and I wish that I could remember the title of that book. Let me say this: I do believe that I should act, but I do not think that it is healthy for me to assume that all of my success depends on me, or that I bear the weight of the world. If I were to believe that, I would be more anxious or obsessive-compulsive than I already am. There is a place, in my opinion, for me to let go and to let God.
- A question that I had while reading Price was this: Can I have some of the things that Price is talking about, while still keeping my faith? If so, on what basis, and do I even need a basis? I agree with Price on a lot of things. Back when I was a right-wing fundamentalist, I did not feel entirely authentic, but rather as if I was sticking to somebody else’s script for me. This was especially the case when it came to me witnessing to others (and Price, in my opinion, does well to question whether the New Testament even requires every single believer to be an evangelist). I had a genuine faith, but I also felt like fundamentalism was forcing me into a mold. At this time in my life, though, my faith is my faith: it is something that I have chosen, it does relate to who I am, and it is not simply some external standard that I have appropriated to myself (though, in my opinion, external standards can be a good thing—-even Price has ideas about what makes for a good life, or a good person). I, too, have issues with biblical inerracy: it seems to me to fall apart easily, plus, like Price, I do not believe that the entire Bible conforms to evangelical theology. I would not go so far as to say that many evangelicals are ventriloguists when it comes to the Bible, as Price does, for I do believe that evangelicals learn from the Bible, as opposed to just projecting their beliefs onto it (and, yes, I believe that they do the latter, too). The doctrine of hell does disturb me. I consider the days on which I do not think much about hell to be psychologically healthy days. I am also open to learning new things. I believe that I can be a Christian and open at the same time, for Christianity is a rich and diverse belief system, and who am I to say that I cannot learn from other religions, as well? Plus, God may show me new things as I grow, based on where I will be. I suppose that I try to center my faith on God being a God of love, and I base that, in part, on God giving us ethical commands: if God commands us to love, then one can reasonably conclude that God loves. On issues such as hell, inerrancy, etc., I try to stay open. Maybe concepts such as progressive revelation, or liberal models of divine revelation, or hell being a place of separation from God, or the possibility of universalism, or Rahner’s concept of the anonymous Christian can help me to have a version of Christianity that makes sense to me and does not make me into a jerk. Fundamentalists may accuse me of picking and choosing, and perhaps they have a point. My overall point here is that I do believe that one can be authentic, learning, changing, and growing, while still having some Christian faith.
- Price critiques Warren for focusing on eternity. Warren says that we should not sweat the small stuff because we (or we Christians) will live forever in bliss. Price, by contrast, says that we should not sweat the small stuff because life is short, and this is the only life we have. Price actually appeals to the Bible in making this point: Psalm 90:12 talks about the importance of numbering one’s days. There is a sense in which what Price says appeals to me, and a sense in which it does not. While I was reading Price, I thought to myself that getting rid of bitterness is easier for me if I do so because life is short and I do not want to wrestle with bitterness, than it is if I am obeying the command of some God who will condemn me for being bitter. Why can I not just learn from my mistakes and move on, rather than thinking that God still holds my mistakes against me because I have a hard time forgiving others (Matthew 6:15; Mark 11:26)? A universe without God can be appealing! On the other hand, I have issues with the idea of looking to this world as my sole home. Many people cannot make the most out of this life, for there are many unpleasing, unsatisfying things. People with less privilege than I have would see that as a gross understatement. There have been seasons in my life in which the hope of heaven has been the main thing keeping me going, with a positive attitude, that is. Jonathan Edwards’ sermon on heaven as a place where people love each other ministered to me in a time when I was lonely and alienated. Life is better for me now, but I still hope that this life is not all there is.
- Price does make some interesting points about the Bible in this book. He talks about I Corinthians and how an author there is trying to make prophecy and tongues into something that edifies the church with a clear message, rather than an ecstatic way to praise God with the angels! Price likens this author to a Presbyterian trying to suppress Pentecostal expression! At the same time, Price also maintains that I Corinthians 2:14ff., which says that the spiritual man knows the things of God, is about glossalalia, which would make it a pro-glossalia passage. This makes me curious about Price’s views on the authorship of I Corinthians, and he has written a book about the Pauline epistles, so perhaps I should consult that, sometime in the future.
Price covers a lot more in this book: his experiences with his group, Heretics Anonymous; how his wife Carol is better in certain social situations than he is (and I thought I was the only one who brought a book to a social gathering!); the development of the concept of Satan within ancient Judaism; and how it is better to see life as random rather than to think that God causes everything (good and bad). I myself wrestle with the question of whether God protects me and my loved ones (a la Psalm 91), and how one can account for the times when that does not seem to be the case. I cannot say that my beliefs on this are consistent; I guess that I lean towards the idea that I can turn to God in times of peril, and that those times can be opportunities for me to grow and build character (and Price is actually open to the latter).
In any case, there is a lot more territory that I can cover in this book write-up.
I do not feel a great desire to read Rick Warren’s book after reading Price’s response to it, but Warren did make one point that I liked. In Acts 28, after a shipwreck, Paul is gathering firewood to build a fire for the shipwrecked. Warren appealed to this story as an example of Paul having a servant attitude, but Price believed that Warren was going too far, and that this detail was in the story simply to set the stage for Paul to be bitten by a serpent, without getting sick or dying afterwards. I kind of like Warren’s observation and homiletical application of the text, though: Paul was thinking of others and their comfort, even though he himself was tired, and he was willing to pitch in and help.